‘French’ becomes a dirty word in US campaign
By Sandra Maler
FOR centuries the very mention of France has conjured up images of elegance and sophistication but in an increasingly heated US presidential campaign, “French” has become a dirty word.
Capitalizing on anti-French sentiment among some Americans following France’s decision not to back the war in Iraq, some Republicans have repeatedly accused Democratic contender Sen. John Kerry of “looking French.”
The conservative press has jumped on the bandwagon, spurred by an anonymous Bush adviser making the comparison to The New York Times. Wall Street Journal commentator James Taranto, for example, has many times referred to Kerry as a “haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat.”
President George W. Bush and his campaign have not characterized Kerry in such a fashion publicly and the Bush campaign declined to comment. “Pas de commentaire,” said spokesman Reed Dickens jokingly.
“It should be a compliment but in this context it means that Kerry would defer to France and Germany rather than defend his country,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
Kerry has French relatives and speaks the language fluently. “I thought America was the great melting pot and I don’t see why Mr. Bush is picking out a nationality to criticize,” said Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter.
“It’s exactly that kind of attitude by Mr. Bush that has led America to be alone in the world.”
Ever since French President Jacques Chirac held his ground at the United Nations early last year and refused to follow America into war with Iraq, there has been a backlash against things French in middle America.
In the wake of the war, US lawmakers ordered French fries renamed “Freedom” fries in the cafeteria of the US House of Representatives.
“When you have Americans dumping fine French wine down their sink in protest at Iraq, you see the depth of the sense of betrayal,” said Francoise Meltzer, a humanities professor at the University of Chicago.
‘Punching bag’: The attacks against France during the campaign prompted the French ambassador to Washington, Jean-David Levitte, to protest to US authorities this month.
“... We’ve been a bit too much as France the punching bag of the electoral debate,” Levitte said recently during a speech at Johns Hopkins University.
Hall said this anti-French sentiment was relatively new.
“The level of international awareness in the United States is so low, I don’t think the American public in general had a clear impression of France,” she said. “If anything, prior to this concept, most Americans would assume ‘looking French’ would have been a compliment. People would take it as a synonym for being attractive, worldly and cultured.”
Meltzer, a dual French-American national, says the anti-French sentiment is mostly a phenomenon among middle Americans - middle in terms of geography and class - a main group of voters, along with Christian fundamentalists, targeted by the Republican Party.
“There is a kind of rage among middle Americans that the French are ungrateful because ‘we saved you in 1944 and now that we need you, you’re not there.’ The French didn’t come through after Americans came through for them,” Meltzer said.
“It’s true that America helped the French during World War Two but after all, without the French, it would not have won the American Revolution, and none of this has anything to do with whether the French should be in Iraq,” she added.
While Bush and Kerry share the same background - upper class from New England - Bush has cultivated his Texan roots and affects a slangy speech, with broken sentences and uneven pronunciations like “nucular” instead of “nuclear.”
Kerry, on the other hand, is perceived as a multilingual intellectual who speaks with an expansive vocabulary, proper grammar and syntax.
“Not only does Kerry speak French. He speaks English well,” Meltzer said. “In addition his wife is foreign - she speaks with an accent and she speaks her mind... That further contaminates Kerry. He’s part Jewish, he grew up Catholic, he studied in Switzerland and he speaks French - this all combines to make him ‘French’, not really American.
“French really means un-American,” she added. Although Bush has a French tailor, Georges de Paris, and until recently enjoyed the culinary delights of White House French pastry chef Roland Mesnier, he has publicly shunned things foreign.
While on trip to France in May 2002, he chided an American reporter for asking Chirac a question in French during a joint news conference in Paris. “He memorizes four words and plays like he’s all intercontinental,” Bush sneered.
Kerry, on the other hand, has even on occasion spoken French on the campaign trail. Opinion polls show Europeans overwhelmingly want him to win.
“Anybody who has been at the Statue of Liberty (a present from France) knows that America’s greatest strength is its mix of nationalities and I think it’s time for Mr. Bush to take one more trip to the Statue of Liberty to find out what America is all about,” Cutter said. reuters